Monday, 7 March 2016

Why study Semiotics.

I was asked to write a few lines on why I decided to study semiotics, and why this discipline is worth studying. Here a few reasons I come up with.

I personally started to study semiotics for the wrong reason. I needed 5 ects in “Philosophy” and, as I had a very bad professor of philosophy in high school, I didn't want to engage a course on the topic. Among the exams that I could choose, however, there was an exam of Semiotics of Culture by a certain Massimo Leone (a name that, at the time, didn't tell me anything). I knew almost nothing about semiotics, but I thought it was worth a try. Little I knew that that course would have changed my life.
In brief, if I should say why it is a good idea to study semiotics I would propose three simple key words: deconstruction, structural analysis and ideological objectivity. They are, of course, simplistic, but they should be enough to introduce the three features that make semiotics unique. First of all: deconstruction. When approaching a subject or studying something it is always a good idea to start by trying to demolish all the prejudices and the certainties that we might have previously established. Semiotics, dealing with meaning, signs and narratology, is up to the task. It's powerful analytic tools are able to explicit – and thus defuse – many rhetoric discourses. Ideas such as “authenticity” and “novelty” or oppositions such as “culture vs nature” are shown as what they are: inherently artificial semiotic constructions. This should not lead us to some sort of nihilism, but on the contrary, help us to admire the marvelous complexity of semiosis, the inextricably intertwined nature of signs, the industrious ability of human beings to build up semiospheres. Understanding the semiotic nature of our ideas, concepts and values doesn't diminish their value, but it spurs us to understand that their importance is, indeed, relative and that they're not “carved in stone”.
Secondly: structural analysis. I know that the word “structural” is out of fashion, today. Post-structuralism has been seen (at least oversees) as a criticism to structuralism, and today many scholars prefer biological metaphors with a positivist flavor, or images evoking “nets”, “webs” and “connections”, undoubtedly influenced by the medium (if we can call it such) that is reshaping our lives: the World Wide Web. However, I think that this old fashioned concept has still much to offer. Firstly, because, without it, meaning inevitably falls behind a wall of ineffability or, even worse, is reduced to a reductionist neurological-scientific model unable to explain the complexity of human behavior. A structural approach to signs and texts – and even to cultures – is able to reconstruct, at least partially, how these semiotics devices are constituted and, therefore, how they work. Fortunately semiotics offers many tool to analyze many different aspects of human existence from the perspective of meaning, by reconstructing their structure (not only in a structuralist way). The French School provides the tools to analyze signs and texts, Umberto Eco's work (and, before him, Peirce) to investigate how the reader react to the text, Sociosemiotics (Landowski and, from a certain point of view, Fontanille) the tools to shed some light on how semiotic activity affects society and, finally Semiotics of Culture (mainly the Tartu-Moskow Semiotic School) helps us to trace and understand the way texts (and/or modeling systems) shape and are shaped by culture and by its hierarchies and dynamics. In other words, semiotics is able to operate in all the plans of immanence (from signs to cultures) and to describe them all with an unique metalanguage. There aren't many other disciplines that could claim the same!
Finally, ideological objectivity. This last key concept is, in fact, a product of the other two. Keeping in mind that true objectivity is, of course, impossible, semiotics allows us to overcome our inevitably restricted point of view and to look “down” at the world with renewed eyes. Once our prejudices dismantled and our certainties deconstructed, armed with the proper tools, we can finally approach different cultures – and even our own – free from the restraints of our narrow point of view. As Eco claims in his a theory of semiotics - semiotics can be a valid tool to defuse the ideological discourses and promote the critical ones.